Rep. Marcia Fudge didn’t sugarcoat her feelings about the fact that President Barack Obama has not yet chosen any African-Americans to fill open high-level positions in his second term.
“The people you have chosen to appoint in this new term have hardly been reflective of this country’s diversity,” the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote in a terse letter to Obama this month. “Their ire is compounded by the overwhelming support you’ve received from the African-American community.”
The letter’s tone and tenor typifies the blunt, hard-charging style of Fudge, an Ohio Democrat, and signals a shift in how the 43-member caucus of African-American Senate and House of Representatives members will approach the nation’s first African-American president in his final years in office.
“I’m a very direct person just generally,” Fudge said in an interview. “I don’t use a lot of words unnecessarily. I try to get to the heart of the issue, address it and go on to the next thing.”
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Fudge hopes to give the CBC a “bigger voice” beyond Congress in order to press an agenda that includes improving economic conditions for African-Americans, preserving and improving voting rights laws, and seeking a balanced change in the country’s immigration laws.
“I believe we can be stronger, more visible, but I also think we can be more effective if we take our positions beyond Capitol Hill,” Fudge said of the caucus. “We want to make sure that everybody understands that we’re not some group that’s so way out that we can’t fit in the mainstream. We are very mainstream, and I want that message to be told.”
Over the last four years, many CBC members held their tongues, quietly grumbled, or delicately expressed frustration about a seeming inability to get their message to Obama.
They contend the president was inattentive to a number of issues impacting African-Americans, especially an unemployment rate nearly twice the nation’s overall jobless rate.
Their frustration is amplified by the amount of time it’s been since the caucus has met with the president – it will be two years on May 12. Obama met with leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in January and proclaimed revamping immigration laws as a top legislative priority. Fudge says she expects the countdown to end soon, though she doesn’t have meeting date from the White House yet.
“I would advise people to get used to a very candid and thoughtful conversation from Marcia Fudge,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who served as caucus chair in the last Congress and admitted to taking a softer approach in dealing with the Obama White House. “She’s tough as nails and sweet as honey.”
Asked to list Fudge’s attributes, Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democratic CBC member from Georgia, reeled off “impatience, fire, passion on issues of concern not just to African-Americans but to all working people.”
Fudge said she hasn’t received a direct reply from Obama to the letter in which she also expressed disappointment that the White House hasn’t considered “a number of qualified candidates” recommended by the CBC for administration jobs over the last four years.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters shortly after Fudge’s letter that Obama “is committed to diversity” and “believes that having a diverse Cabinet and a diverse set of advisers enhances the decision-making process for him and any president.”
Since then, Fudge said she’s had “good conversations” with White House officials about the issue.
“I think once we got beyond our own corners we found that there were some things that we can do to work together, and I look forward to it,” she said. “It is still my expectation that there will be some people of color, particularly African-Americans, in this administration this term. . . . I think we’re on the same page.”
Coincidently or not, the names of two North Carolina African-American elected officials have recently surfaced as potential hires for administration: Charlotte Democratic Mayor Anthony Foxx for transportation secretary and Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
Not everyone in the black caucus or the African-American community agrees that the makeup of Obama’s second-term Cabinet is a big deal.
Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., told The Daily Beast that he believes the White House is responsive and noted that Attorney General Eric Holder remains in the Cabinet. United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice is another high-profile African-American holdover.
Nationally syndicated African-American radio show host Tom Joyner also believes adding African-Americans to the Obama team shouldn’t be a major priority.
“You know how I feel about black people,” Joyner posted on his blog on BlackAmericaWeb.com earlier this month. “But which is more important, having a diverse Cabinet or getting us out of the hole, over the fiscal cliff and beyond sequestration?”
Fudge, 60, said she understands the expectations and pressures put on Obama that comes with being a “first.” From 2000 to 2008, she served as the first African-American and female mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, a mostly African-American, middle-class suburb of Cleveland.
She also has some experience being a president. From 1996 to 2000 she headed the Delta Sigma Theta, an African-American sorority with more than 200,000 members and 900 chapters worldwide.
“I clearly understand the pressures,” Fudge said. “That is why I want to take some of the responsibility off of him (Obama) for speaking for poor and minority communities and let those of us who do it every day, who live in these communities every day, who understand at a grassroots level what the needs are, and what people’s thinking is, let us be the voice, not him. He can continue to represent all the people of America like he is responsible for doing.”